Have Gun, Will Travel

By Staff Writer
Mar 30, 2018 | Subaru | Posted in Features | From the April 2007 issue | Never miss an article

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story by per schroeder • photos by scott r. lear unless otherwise credited

Our older readers might recall humming along to the theme song of the ’50s Western “Have Gun - Will Travel.” It was a catchy tune: “Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam? Paladin, Paladin, far, far from home.” Paladin, the main character, was the prototypical man in black, and viewers could really get behind the hero with a dark side.

Our younger (and nerdier) readers would also recognize the word Paladin, as it’s a popular term in role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. A Paladin is defined as an honorable knight, usually one with both combat and healing abilities.

We’ll confess, we were most likely in this latter group when we met Matt Iorio and his Paladin Rally team. We were also a little confused by its apparent contradictions: His stunning and well-built Impreza rolled off a basic open trailer towed behind a humble box van. It was grassroots. It was cool. The guy and his team were just nice and fun to hang around with. It became clear a little way into our first conversation with Matt that he’s cut from the same nerdcloth (or would that be nerdcloak?) as we are.

We were even more impressed when we watched the 25-year-old drive the wheels off of his self-built Impreza and darn proud when our new friend was invited to the 2006 ESPN X Games. He finished eighth at this nationally televised event, and his flaming Impreza was featured in the highlight reel.

He also has two back-to-back North American Rally Championship wins in both Canada and the U.S. He’s probably the coolest nerd we know.

The Reasonable Man

Matt’s rally career started off when he was just in college. After playing countless video games, including “Colin McRae Rally,” he decided that he needed to get rid of his beat-up Subaru Legacy and drive a real car. The auto salesman only let him travel a few yards in a new Impreza WRX before Matt’s inability to drive stick became apparent.

Matt purchased the car anyway, and his little problem was quickly overcome, allowing him to drive his new WRX up to the Maine Forest Rally to spectate. “I was shocked to see a race only four hours away in Maine,” the New Hampshire resident says. “I went there with two close friends and a 12-pack.”

Sometime during the day, a local tuning shop flyered his car along with every other rally machine wannabe in the parking lot. “When I saw the list of parts that I could get for the car, it was a blissful feeling,” Matt recalls. “I really didn’t know what most of them did, but anything that said performance seemed like a good buy.”

Matt’s youthful exuberance led to a series of admittedly “misguided, useless, and unnecessary” modifications to the car he named “Sunshine.” The only upside was his resulting exposure to a lot of skills he had not yet acquired in his young life, including basic maintenance and changing tires—that sort of thing.

Matt eventually decided to sell Sunshine and purchase a used, but real, Group N Subaru Impreza and start his own rally career. His first step was to attend Team O’Neil’s four-day rally school. After the school, Matt and co-driver Ben Bradley competed at the Lake Superior Performance Rally in October of 2002.

They quickly found out that there’s a big difference between slinging a beat-up VW through a parking lot and sliding a fast rally car down narrow forest roads. It took Matt a while to figure out how to implement what he’d learned at the O’Neil school in a race setting, but he still passed three cars on one stage and had a blast. Unfortunately the crank sensor became faulty and the team was scored as a DNF.

After LSPR, Matt didn’t rally again until Oregon Trail in 2003. By then, he had graduated from college and was all for rallying on the cheap. Matt had just met his new navigator, Phil Ho, via Ben’s Rally Page, and to get some seat time together they made the cross-country drive in Matt’s Ford F150. Matt says the event was a blast, and he actually got the confidence to drift through the tighter turns. “It wasn’t for another year before I could feel comfortable sliding through a 4-plus turn or higher,” he admits.

The Protege

After Matt’s first few events, the reality of what he was doing set in. “I was learning things,” he explains, “very important things.”

Some of those lessons were actually quite practical. “The first very important thing is to clean the car,” he continues. “Cleaning gets you familiar with parts of the car that you would never have noticed otherwise. How is the Coralba odometer sensor wired? Spend some time on your back with a rag, and you’ll find out.”

He also learned that the color of changed oil reads volumes, struts need to be regreased, seat brackets must be tightened, and the list goes on. Luckily, Phil was a car guy with some experience, so together they pulled transmissions, struts, shafts, and all those other parts that can look shocking the first time they’re seen separated from the car.

Due to the restrictive rules, there is only one proper way to fix a Group N car. The rules specify exactly which components must be run, which is good for beginners like Matt as they’re forced to concentrate on the basic operations of the car.

“Unfortunately it took me a long time to figure this out,” Matt admits, “so I was putting very not homologated parts into my Group N car. Fortunately I was a back-marker, so no one cared.”

Matt competed in Group N through most of 2004 in a succession of Imprezas. “In my third race, I rammed Kylie, my first car, into a Maine boulder. My second car, Dannii, was the one I did most of my early racing in.” Looking back, naming the cars became very helpful. With up to six white two-door Subarus in his shop at any one time, names made a lot more sense than trying to describe the car. (Asking someone to grab the brake lines off the white Impreza with the dent doesn’t exactly narrow things down.)

Toward the end of that season, Matt came to the realization that he had blown up too many five-speed gearboxes and needed to look beyond the limits of the Group N rules. “I couldn’t take the expense of blowing up those damn five-speed boxes,” he says. “I had to move up to a six-speed, which moved me from Group N to Open class.”

This move wound up actually saving the team money in the long run. They were still using their Group N car, but could now replace the hard-to-find and expensive homologated parts with cheaper and readily available tuner pieces.

With the move to Open class competition, car development started to become a very organic process. As parts broke, Matt found out what would last longer. If something broke a lot, but he couldn’t find a better part, he found out how to quickly make repairs and modifications. “There was a lot of time spent taking stock parts and doing a little welding, and a little cutting, to make them a little bit better,” he explains.

Then came Matt’s search for performance upgrades that would improve his stage times. As he eventually learned, some parts worked, others didn’t. “It seems that everyone has an opinion about what will make a car go fast,” he says. He goes on to explain that sometimes you can’t believe something until it literally blows up in your face, like tilting the turbo at too great an angle. “I was told it would leak oil, but I did it anyway. It leaked a lot of oil. It spooled good, though; it spooled nice, blue clouds of exhaust.”

The 2005 season was spent wrecking, breaking, thinking and building. Matt got more and more rallies under his belt with Dannii, rolling her a few times, but never too badly. He finally got the chance to rebuild Kylie, his first Group N car, and promptly plowed her into a tree on the first rally back.

Show of Force

While Matt was busy denting sheet metal during that 2005 season, the seeds for his ultimate rally car were planted. He had extra shop space and some free time on his hands, so he started working on a unique project car. Matt wanted to make an H6-powered, rear-wheel-drive Impreza. He found a clean, dirt-cheap, front-wheel-drive automatic 1995 Impreza that would be his starting point.

While it began as just a silly project, Matt found that with time to waste, he could do the stripping and seam welding very thoroughly himself. On this chassis, which he christened Eve, he decided to remove the paint and seam sealer with a wire wheel. “I probably took years off my life with all that smoke,” he says. “The welds weren’t great, and they were a little far between. In the end, I used more than 11 pounds of welding wire, but hell, that chassis was strong!”

For Eve, Matt used a Custom Cages kit purchased from Doug Havir, who said it didn’t fit. “It turned out to be okay with a lot of grinding. I had to learn how to TIG weld,” Matt says. “I got so frustrated at first that I almost stopped welding altogether. In the end, I found my problem was the heat was too low.”

After several seasons of racing Imprezas, the team recognized that there were some problems that were continually showing up. The radiator core support, for example, was constantly out of whack after even slight nose-hits. Also, once the track was widened to STI specifications, the wheels were rubbing after just 2 inches of travel.

For the building of Eve, Matt had the foresight to right those problems. He took a radical approach by simply hacking off the radiator support and cutting open the fender wells. “I spent a good deal of time thinking about the new radiator setup,” he explains, noting that the stock setup puts the radiator in a far-out, vulnerable position.

“The only thing to do was copy a Baja truck and move the front of the car back and up,” he continues. “Up until about a 50-degree angle, the struts would hit their bumpstops before the skid plate hit the ground. Unfortunately at the X Games we exceeded that limit.”

Eve was a good first step in figuring out what was important in building a good rally chassis. There were many hours in her build, but nothing was very exotic. “We simply designed her to resolve the problems that we consistently faced,” Matt concludes.

Those measures would also be used when building the next chassis, the one that Iorio took to the X Games. He decided that the time had come to reshell Dannii, as a few seasons of rally had taken their toll and made the sheet metal soft. “Imagine a giant playing a car like an accordion,” Matt says. “That’s what rally does to a chassis.”

Matt found another cheap, extremely clean shell for his latest Open-class car. He’d call it the Dannii Prototype—or Deepii for short.

Deepii was a second try for most of the things pioneered with Eve. Paladin Rally acid-dipped the shell, which made seam-welding the chassis much easier. Matt spared no trick. “Everything I could think of to make the car better, I did. The cage was better, too, because I had a clearer idea of what the cage should be.”

As a final touch, Matt beefed up the side impact resistance with steel tubes and covered the rockers in stainless. “I figured making the rockers stronger and extending them would not only save my life in a side impact, but protect the sides from rock blast. Also, the chassis needed some ballast to come up to minimum weight, and the rockers were as low as it got.”

Matt dreams of mass-producing the Deepii chassis to be sold as bare shells, ready to become anything from a rock-solid beginner car to the fastest Open class machine available. The Impreza platform is so flexible, in fact, that it could start as one and be steadily upgraded to the other.

The remainder of the internals used on both of the Paladin team’s latest cars, including the engine, suspension and radios, have been in development since 2004. Since they now had two finished shells, they could make two of everything, one for Eve and one for Deepii, and never have to worry about spares. Deepii became a bit snazzier than Eve, since she was faster, lighter, better balanced and safer.

Rally prep house RalliSpec handled the engine development, and the criteria were the same as for the rest of the car: strong and reliable, with low expense coming before performance. “Eve’s engine is built for reliability, but I wanted Deepii to be scary fast. I’ve been trying to build a bomb, but I haven’t been able to get it to explode. Those motors just go.”

The Last Laugh

Matt may be relatively new to the sport of performance rally, but it looks like 2006 was his breakout year. Matt and navigator Ole Holter finished eighth at the X Games rally competition—within a minute of champ Travis Pastrana—and scored a few big wins in regular season competition.

Most importantly, however, Matt is realizing how rally is more than just going out and trying to set the fastest times possible. “I love being on the stages, but rally is all about problem solving at home. The kid in me likes the adrenaline, but the adult is crazy over the problem solving. I only wish I’d studied engineering instead of psychology.”

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View comments on the GRM forums
NGTD UberDork
3/30/18 5:05 p.m.

I miss Matt. He was fast and pushed some of the top guys.

He disappeared just as quick as he appeared.

irish44j UltimaDork
3/30/18 5:28 p.m.
NGTD said:

I miss Matt. He was fast and pushed some of the top guys.

He disappeared just as quick as he appeared.

The story of rally, really. So many drivers just burn out, crash too many cars, run out of cash, or get tired of it. I think Anders, who runs NASA Rally and is a "big data" type of guy, once went through all rally results for all organizations over a decade or something, and found that the average rally driver does a grand total of something like 3.5 rallies before giving it up. I'm about double that now, but it's definitely a sport that gets expensive fast (even at a super-grassroots level) and required a lot of tolerance for 4-5 day weekends since you need to do recce, shakedown, etc. STPR last year we went up Wednesday through Sunday and that event, doing it as cheaply as possible, still cost over $2500 all told and three days off work. Off all the amateur motorsports, I'd say that rally requires the most time committment "at venue" and probably them ost in the garage as well fixing things......Wife and kids get in the way of it a lot, unless they are VERY tolerant, lol...

That said, there are some seriously fast guys on shoestring budgets that regularly push the top teams (well, other than Higgins and Pastrana, perhaps). mid-Atlantic locals Adam Kimmett and Jon Kramer are both fast as hell in ratty old Subaru GCs that look crappier than that one, haha....

No idea what happened to Matt. he was gone before I started rallying...I think the last thing I can find him running was in about 2007 or so. 

incidentally, that photo is reminiscent of the cover photo on our local facebook rally group - Sergei Grishin blasting in to the air on an unexpected culvert during Sandblast '17..Paint jobs are even similar :)

NGTD UberDork
3/30/18 8:31 p.m.

In reply to irish44j :

Yeah, I know what you mean. Even as a volunteer, last year at Tall Pines I was there 4 days and I spent $400 of my own money. I have had my car 2 years and I have only made one event.

Matt settled down with his girl friend, sold off all his gear and was gone.

livinon2wheels New Reader
4/2/18 5:07 p.m.

thats what happens...u run out of money...or run into someone more important than rallying...aint love grand? :)

te72 New Reader
4/2/18 11:53 p.m.

I work on cars out of necessity, not out of any particular love of wrenching. Could I do it? Yes. Would I want to do it? Yes. Will I do it? No chance in hell.


I figure if experience with the Supra is any indication, I'd spend WAY more time building the car than driving it, and frankly... that's just not much fun, at least not in the short term. Long term may be a different story. Now, if budget (and you know, adult life in general) weren't a concern and I could devote myself to rallying full time? I'd almost certainly never wake up without dirt under my nails. =)

MatthewIorio None
1/29/21 3:41 p.m.

Awww, thanks guys, I miss you too!  Yup, I've got a wife and 4 kids. Spending my own money to be away 24 weekends of the year stopped being an option. When my kids are old enough to drive I'll take them rally crossing.

captdownshift (Forum Supporter)
captdownshift (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltimaDork
1/29/21 3:51 p.m.

Regional rally sprints that don't require a $500 plus tow fund for an event, are touch easier on equipment, and don't have a silly national points championship are the ways to get people to stay in the sport a bit longer.


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